Michigan High School Ethics Symposium

IMPORTANT NEWS: The 2021 Ethics Symposium is not being held this year in the wake of the continuing health and safety guidelines required for the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 Case Writing Awards are going forward and the winners will be announced on May 7, 2021.   


In ancient Greece, figures like Socrates and Plato frequently attended convivial parties called symposia in the homes of Greek elites, where they discussed philosophy and important matters of the day. The Michigan High School Ethics Symposium similarly aims to foster spirited discussions about ethical issues that matter to Michigan's high school students and to our world. 

Zoe Johnson-King - the co- founder of U-M Dept. of Philosophy Outreach program and founder of The Symposium- and the 2015 MHSEB state champions from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School recreate the School of Athens

Individually or in groups, students give short 10- to 15-minute presentations on a challenging ethical question or case study. Following each presentation, the audience has an opportunity to ask questions, encouraging students to delve even deeper into these difficult and important issues. Like the ancient Athenians, these young philosophers come together to think, to learn, and to enjoy good, stimulating conversation and collegiality. Along with presentations, we traditionally crown the winners of A2Ethics' annual case competition, which encourages high school students to write 500-800 word case studies on the ethical issues that matter most to them.

                          Scenes from the 2019 Symposium                                                                                                                                            Scenes from the 2019 Symposium

The symposium is hosted by The University of Michigan Department of Philosophy's Outreach Program, which was founded in 2011 with the aim of bringing philosophy out of the academy and into the community. In their own words: We offer opportunities for students and other members of our local community, especially those from backgrounds underrepresented in the academy, to engage with new ideas and to develop their critical thinking skills. We also aim to learn from those with whom we engage; since philosophy is concerned with making sense of human experience, we depend on insights gained through dialogue with a diverse range of perspectives and critical viewpoints.

In 2013, we began our partnership with A2Ethics, the local community group with whom we organize the Michigan High School Ethics Bowl. Our graduate student coaches travel to schools across Michigan to teach students moral and political theory and to help them apply these ideas to real-life case studies, which address pressing moral questions of contemporary relevance. The Bowl season culminates in a two-day interscholastic competition held annually in the winter. The winning Michigan team earns a place at the National High School Ethics Bowl in Chapel Hill, NC, which takes place each April. Finally, the Michigan High School Ethics Symposium, which closes our Bowl season, creates an opportunity for participants to carry their interest in ethics, politics, and philosophy further by presenting individual projects on ethical topics to an audience of peers, mentors, and friends. 

The ethos of the Outreach Program is aptly reflected in a quotation from John Dewey, a former chair of the Department at Michigan: “Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.”